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Harvesting olives in the West Bank: not as simple as it sounds

25-11-2009 Interview

In the occupied West Bank, an estimated 10 million olive trees help some 100,000 families to make ends meet. For a number of years, the harvest has been hampered by restricted access. Tom Glue, who coordinates the ICRC's economic security programme in the territory, explains.

Tom Glue, coordinator of the ICRC's economic security programme 

©Reuters / N. Hashlamoun    
Palestinians pick olives near the Israeli barrier during harvest season in the West Bank village of Surif    

 Why is the annual olive harvest so important for Palestinian families living in the occupied West Bank?  

Around 100,000 Palestinian families, most of them in the West Bank, depend to some extent on the olive harvest for their income. I say " to some extent " because the olive harvest mostly provides a secondary income for Palestinian families. Nevertheless, with high unemployment rates and so many people struggling to make ends meet, a good harvest can make a significant contribution to a family's budget.

The olive trees and harvest also represent an important part of Palestinian heritage and tradition. The groves are handed down from one generation to the next, as the trees can live for hundreds of years. The trees are therefore a symbol of the Palestinians'deep connection to the land and of their way of life. Usually, every family member participates in the harvest. It is a collective effort that brings together young and old.

For a number of years, however, the olive harvest has been hampered by restricted access to groves in areas between the West Bank barrier and the 1949 Armistice Line, known as the " Green Line. " There have even been instances where farmers have been attacked and prevented from harvesting by settlers.

 What can you tell us about this year's harvest?  

The harvest took place without major incident, which is an improvement on previous years. The Palestinian and Israeli authorities jointly coordinate d Palestinian farmers'access to restricted areas around settlements and behind the West Bank barrier. The ICRC monitored the harvest but never had to take action as it did in previous years, for example when gates leading to olive groves remained shut.

It has to be said, though, that it was marred by the fact that thousands of trees were cut down or burned earlier in the year by settlers. In addition, Palestinian farmers in some areas were required for the first time to apply for permits to enter their lands behind the barrier. About 400 such applications were made for the southern part of the West Bank and fewer than half were approved. In most cases where applications were denied, the Israeli authorities argued that the farmers did not hold valid land-ownership documents.

 How do the restrictions on access affect the farmers?  

Contrary to what is often said, olive trees need quite a lot of tending throughout the year to produce a good yield. In normal circumstances, farmers go to their groves every month for pruning, fertilizing, weeding or protecting the trees against pests and disease. According to an ICRC study, the yield can drop by up to 80 per cent if the land and the trees are not properly taken care of. So a farmer who is allowed access to his lands only once a year suffers economically as well as psychologically.

In addition, a farmer can be totally powerless if his trees catch fire – he cannot simply go to his land and put out the fire – or if they are uprooted by settlers. New trees can of course be planted, but it will take up to 15 years before they produce a full yield. The loss of trees can therefore result in many years of financial hardship for families and sometimes entire farming communities.

 What can the ICRC do for farmers who encounter such problems?  

Most of our efforts are aimed at helping people in the centre of the West Bank, where the barrier's routing has all but cut off access to many olive groves.

We can help farmers in various ways. For example, this winter, we will provide 70,000 olive seedlings to farmers who were not permitted to properly maintain their trees, or whose trees were uprooted or burnt. It is expensive to replace trees, so this is an effective way to help them.

Normally, it can take hours to pluck all the olives from a single tree, depending on how many people are involved. But some farmers, whose groves are behind the barrier or close to settlements, are only given a relatively short time to pick the olives by their Israeli military escorts. In order to reduce the time it takes to harvest, we have handed out plastic sheeting and mechanical harvesting devices that help shake the olives off the trees quickly. The olives fall on the plastic sheeting and can then be collected in sacks.

We also provide ad hoc assistance for individual families with special needs. For example, we helped an elderly farmer and his wife who could only reach their groves with great difficulty because the gate they needed to go through to cross the barrier was miles from their house. We gave them a donkey and a cart, which made it much easier for them to reach their land.

 How do you view the future of olive farming in the West Bank?  

Based on this year's experience, I am hopeful that the harvest will be less of a problem in coming years. A trouble-free harvest would be a welcome development.

Still, the harvest will never be truly normal until farmers with land close to settlements and behind the West Bank barrier are given access to their trees all year round . They should also be allowed more scope to export their olive oil. Olive trees in the Palestinian territory produce an average of 20,000 tonnes of oil a year, which means that a good harvest results in a surplus that brings prices down.

Easing the Israeli-imposed restrictions and allowing part of the olive harvest to be sold abroad would result in a real boost not only for individual farmers and their families but also for the West Bank economy as a whole. Finally and perhaps most importantly, Israel has an obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure that the Palestinian population under occupation can live as normal a life as possible.